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Jeff Chang/Who We Be. Image from

Who We Be Examines the War on Multiculuralism

“Color is not a human or a personal reality, it is a political reality.” – James Baldwin

This is not a book review, because Who We Be isn’t really a book. It’s more of a thoughtful examination of how the United States arrived at this point in racial history.

Long time friend of the blog Jeff Chang is the author of the American Book award winning Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation and editor of the anthology Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip Hop. To say we’ve been waiting for Who We Be is an understatement.

But in the introduction, Chang frames the core of the most recent case of racial backlash. Explaining the outsized reaction by some whites to President Obama, Chang notes:

In the 1830s white minstrels had put on blackface, creating space for the white working class to challenge the elite, while keeping Blacks locked into their racial place. Obama now appeared as a dual symbol of oppression. Because of his Blackness, he was even more of an outsider—and in that sense, even more American—than them. But he was also the president. His Blackness did not just confer moral and existential claims, it was backed by the power of the state.

And there went everything.

As much as we like to talk about the inevitability of America being majority-minority in 2042, the events playing out across the nation show that most places are outright hostile to the idea that people of color are equal Americans, with the same rights, privileges, representation, and agenda setting power bestowed to whites. Chang turns his critical eye to shifts in culture which becomes documentation of rise (and fall?) of multiculturalism. Continue reading

#WeNeedDiverseBooks: Historical Fiction and Making Reading Fun

Gotta catch ‘em all– the history nerd’s pokemon

By Kendra James

Like most of my friends in elementary school, I was obsessed with The American Girl dolls and books The dolls lacked comprehensive diversity back then, in that they had one single doll of colour until 1997. I owned Felicity Merriman, a white girl who lived in colonial Williamsburg, but received Addy Walker, a former slave who escapes from the South into Philadelphia, soon after she debuted in 1993. As per my mother’s rule, I read all six of Addy’s books before being gifted the doll. But unlike Felicity’s, I didn’t often revisit them for pleasure. In my constant search for American historical fiction with protagonists of colour written for young readers, I often come across the same problem I did when I was younger: it’s all really depressing.

Addy Walker’s story begins in Meet Addy while she’s still enslaved, and I have vivid memories of one paragraph where her overseer forces her to eat tobacco leaf worms. If you had asked me, when I was younger, to state a fact about Harriet Tubman I would have told you about the time her mistress threw a porcelain sugar bowl at her head. Meanwhile, Felicity’s biggest worry in life in Meet Felicity was saving a horse. My favourite young adult historical fiction author, Ann Rinaldi, wrote stories that spanned across races, but her romantic stories about southern belles and women of the revolutionary war were always more fun to read than her sanitised retellings of the Jeffersons and the Hemmings or Sioux boarding schools.

In pre-Mattel age when the American Girl Doll franchise was still owned and partially run by Pleasant Rowland and her Pleasant Company, I devoured their 90 page novels about young girls scattered throughout various points of American history. Back then they were a genuinely decent source of early education and introduction into various facets of American history for an 8 year old girl. I credit the dolls and their books for the love of middle and young adult historical-fiction I took into my adult life, but that doesn’t mean they were all fun.

Maybe I fixated on strange things when I was younger, but it was always the worst elements of these books, American Girls and others, that stuck with me, and I get the feeling that’s not the experience for the little girls with a wider variety of characters who look like them to choose from.

White characters not only get a wider variety of books to choose from, but books in a wider variety of settings. Characters of colour in American hist-fic tend to exist strictly within certain boundaries of time or not at all. African-Americans exist within the boundaries of slavery, the Jim Crow South, or the Civil Rights movement. Native Americans exist in the mythical west until about 1870 or so, Asian-Americans exist during World War 2, only in the west (and only from Eastern countries), and I had to reach out to our followers to fill in the gaps my childhood reading material left when it came to Latin@s.

These stories need to be told, of course. Diverse literature for young readers is extremely important. The world needs YA literature about Japanese Internment during the Second World War, but they shouldn’t be the only books Japanese-American children get to see themselves reflected in. This isn’t to encourage the erasure or minimalisation of the realities that people of colour have historically faced, but rather a desire for authors and publishers to realise that all of us existed in America outside the times of our most publicised oppressions. And that, even during the most difficult times, we still had lives that didn’t necessarily completely revolve around the overhead political themes of the day.

With that in mind, and because I’m 26 year old woman who still reads almost exclusively YA and middle grade fiction, I’ve compiled a list (that is by no means complete) of historical fiction with POC characters that might allow young and middle adult readers to have a little more fun with their reading escapism.

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The Racialicious Links Roundup 11.14.13: Sleepy Hollow, Renisha McBride, Luke Cage, Rememberance Day, YA Lit

Years ago, an actor/writer working on a pilot episode for Fox told me she suspected a 2010 session just led producers to transform tertiary white characters into ethnic minorities, with no change in the scripts to acknowledge the shift in race or culture.

But then came this fall’s sleeper hit, “Sleepy Hollow,” Fox’s tale about the modern-day adventures of Ichabod Crane. Ichabod somehow awakens in modern times after a 250-year sleep. The story unfolds like “The X-Files” meets “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (except the Yankee moves forward in time rather than back). Crane teams with a young cop to tackle supernatural weirdness related to the return of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

And the young cop, Abbie Mills, is played by Nicole Beharie, an up-and-coming African-American actor who made a splash as Jackie Robinson’s wife this spring in the film “42.” Suddenly, the show was anchored by a strong black woman who gets to kick down doors, tote a trusty sidearm and play skeptical Dana Scully to Ichabod Crane’s witchcraft-wise Fox Mulder (for the uninitiated, that’s an X-Files shout-out).

When the show featured a storyline centered on Mills’ sister, we got to see two black women in an action/adventure setting, fighting the bad guys instead of waiting to be rescued or seduced. It was exactly the kind of diverse casting I had been waiting for since 1999, when the issue hit a crisis point as the broadcast networks offered a fall slate of new TV shows without a single character of color.

We have been here before. Our history becomes our present so often it becomes difficult to distinguish the two. Politicians and cable news hosts and the naïvely colorblind ask us to forget, most of the country obliges, and black people, again, are left to piece together the fragments of history, suffering, rage, and pain so that we may have hope for something better.

Again we advocate for justice. Again we question what justice would even look like. Again we demand that black life be valued. Again we wonder why it never was in the first place. Again we weep, we pray, we march, we raise our voices. Again we prepare ourselves to be let down. And again we ask when will the moment come where we won’t have to go through this again.

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Book Review: Buck by M.K. Asante

By Guest Contributor Erica “RivaFlowz” Buddington, reposted from RivaFlowz.com
My mother walked into my dorm room, my sophomore year, with an armful of books. I snickered at her trying to pull all the goodies she’d brought from New York to Virginia, into the small space that already exuded bibliophile. My mother always picked the same stuff up for me: compiled quotes from prominent and life-changing authors, love stories, and anything Toni Morrison. I’d begun to assess the texts and I gave them the typical nod, when one jumped out at me. It was an orange and black cover, unique amongst the rest and it boasted the title “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop.” My mom smiled at my piqued interest.
“I saw that one in the clearance aisle and I know you’re big on the history of it, so I thought you’d like it.” I smiled back at her, but didn’t show too much excitement. I was at the age where I wanted to show my mother that nothing she did could thrill me and I was an independent woman who encountered excitement on her own accord. I was a silly girl.
The book sat on my shelf, next to the other books I’d purchased on hip-hop. M.K. Asante, I thought? Who is that? It sat on my shelf for several weeks, unread, until I knocked it over, in a hurry, to grab my book bag. My OCD prodded me to put it back in formation, but instead I decided to throw it into my bag, knowing that finals week would spawn gaps of boredom, because I was all studied up.
I opened Asante’s It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop for the first time, while waiting for my SUV to be repaired. I sat in the waiting room annoyed that the “small fix” had taken three hours more than they’d estimated. However, my patience, usually worn thin easily, was in tact. I was knee deep in a text that spoke to me and analyzed a culture and genre in a way that only lyricism allowed me to.
They can call M.K. what they’d like: a memoirist, filmmaker, historian and more. However, M.K. is and will always be a poet. His last work and his new memoir Buck is lyricism at its finest, in its purest and rawest form.
Buck is  M.K.’s memoir; it takes place growing up in Philly, a symphony with strums of two parents with different ideologies, the camaraderie and heartbreak of brotherhood, and the loss of friendship and love.
Two authors masterfully tell the story; M.K. uses entries from his mother’s journal and his own voice to relay the struggle of his youth. Through Carole, his mother, and M.K.’s words we’re transported to the anarchy of a teenager whose sorrow is exerted through “grown-man” antics and the mimicry of the lyricists he was so fond of.
M.K. pulls us through the memories of his teen-hood with stories that any inner-city kid could relate to and others that can only clench our hearts, in understanding. His tête-à-tête, interview-script style, reminiscent of the one with Hip-Hop in his last work, with his parents is reminiscent of the tales our parents relay to us when we haven’t been on our best behavior. A brotherly bond is unraveled in the symbolism and foreshadowing of nun chucks and brass knuckles, emcees, and older sibling philosophy. A bit of innocence and morality of a fledgling is sustained through a first love that only wants the best for a young M.K. and the refusal to indulge in all detriments of his vices.
This bit of goodness is what keeps M.K. alive. Along his path we encounter kings, queens, and prophecies that save M.K.’s life little by little, consciously and unconsciously. There is an alternative school teacher who shows him the power of the pen. There is a moment under a city bridge where M.K.’s life is saved by the remnants of his fallen loved one. There is the trip to the south, where a family member, who could pick up the angst of his aura, spouts a comparison of wolves and hunger, which will stick to every decision you make from the day after reading it.
M.K. finds his way to a thriving and traveling conscience that is the definition of transformation: a literary cacophony that can only be given justice, by being read.
Buck reads like urban fiction with conscious and purpose. It is the voice of every young black man, in America, who cries out for the world around him to notice. It’s the eyes of all the young men who sit inside of my classroom and wonder what’s next.
A few years ago I met Asante, after he spoke at the Schomburg. After the reading and the signing of our books, a few of my friends and I were given the opportunity to have lunch with him. Asante spoiled us with synopses of what he was working on and conversation that could have only been cultivated by a man who’d devoured the world hungrily. I stood in awe at our comrade, who was only 27 at the time, and I wondered how someone so young could’ve gained so much, so quickly.
Now I am certain that I know.
In New York City, we have a tendency to tell our children to relax. Often caught “getting buck” in the streets, we are prompted to quiet their notions of propelling their anger to all the wrong places.
But I’ve got this great idea…
Put M.K.’s new book in the hands of those boys who haven’t found the right way to declare their rage. Let their fingers flip through the pages that will turn to mirrors, as some of them recognize themselves within M.K.’s words. Let those words seep in and contextualize that hurt. Let them learn, line by line. Let’s give the next generation a completely different way to “get buck.”
Erica “RivaFlowz” Buddington is a teacher and professional writer living in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter @rivaflowz.

Black Pulp features Walter Mosley, other black authors

black pulp cover

Book cover illustration by Adam Shaw

Publisher Pro Se Productions, dedicated to the “classic fiction of pulp magazines and adventure tales” and “push[ing] the boundaries of modern genre fiction,” has a new offering: Black Pulp. The new book features black characters in leading roles–a departure from the literary genre, popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Glossy pulp magazines, noted for shocking tales of adventure, mystery, crime, horror and mayhem, rarely featured African American characters or other characters of color, and certainly not in heroic positions. In fact, in a review of the book, Hard-Boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines, Andrew Loman notes the conservative ideology of classic pulp, as well as the genre’s “obvious misogyny, homophobia and racism.”

Novelist Gary Philips, who originated the concept for Black Pulp, says, “While revisionism is not history, as Django Unchained signifies, nonetheless historical matters find their way into popular fiction.  This is certainly the case with new pulp as it handles such issues as race with a modern take, even though stories can be set in a retro context.  Black Pulp then offers exciting tales of derring-do and clear-eyed heroes and heroines of darker hues appealing to all.”

Black Pulp features an essay on “the nature of pulp” literature by award-winning author, Walter Mosley.

I’ve got this waiting on my Kindle and I can’t wait to dig in!

Book Excerpt: “Seeing Things” from Godless Americana

By Guest Contributor Sikivu Hutchinson

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The two young men of color walk through the gallery transfixed. There is so much to see and so little time to see it in; no docents handy to provide a frame, no earphones to squawk on about context and artist’s intent. The trip from their South L.A. school to the L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA) in the Miracle Mile section of Wilshire Boulevard is, figuratively, a world away. As the first car-euphoric corridor in Los Angeles, Miracle Mile still retains its sheen. The museum’s multi-million dollar exhibits and au courant architecture showcase the pinnacle of Western culture—from classic to modern to contemporary avant-garde. The wing that the students walk through is the brain child of billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, an ethereally lit sanctuary that brings them face-to-face with artist Glenn Ligon’s anatomy of black otherness. Ligon’s exhibit beckons with written evaluations from his elementary-school teachers. Their comments range from praise to quizzical disappointment. One implies that he is squandering his potential. Another pronounces that he has insufficient “black consciousness.” As records of one student’s arc, they are unremarkable, inviting a voyeurism that only piques interest in the context of the artist’s success. However, as grade-school primers of the genealogy of Ligon’s marked body and, implicitly, that of all black students, they are deeply moving.

In the art gallery, time is suspended. It is crafted as a hermetic space, a rebuke to the outside world where quiet contemplation is a rare commodity, fast becoming the province of the super rich. At this particular exhibit, guards of color stand silently at the ready. There is a black presence stationed in every room, a reminder of the invisibility of people of color in the high-flying corporate art scene. With their stiff uniforms and stoic expressions, the guards both comment on and perform the authority of the museum. They are there and not there, breaking from the tedium of their posts to remind students to put away their cell phones and refrain from taking pictures. They protect the secular sanctity of the gallery space through the veneer of enforcement, adding another layer of seeing and surveillance.

What do the students see in a culture in which they are trained to view art and aesthetics as the province of white geniuses? How do they navigate seeing in a culture in which the vision of white geniuses defines universal standards of beauty, value, goodness, and human worth? How do they learn, as Carter G. Woodson says, to breathe, swallow, and regurgitate the template of white universal subject-hood as sacred creed and covenant? How do they learn—how did they learn—to become blind to themselves, to see themselves as the Other?

The politics of seeing are part of what drives God lust. God provides a blank canvas for all fears, anxieties, hopes, ambitions, and dreams. He/she/it becomes the tabula rasa for the dreamer, the universal fail-safe for the fucked-up, the crushed, the abject, and the abandoned. In an intensely capitalistic, racially segregated culture, God-dreaming is a kind of art-making. God is closely tied to self-making and invention. It’s a realm that offers both the illusion of agency or control and the conceit of subjection.

Ligon’s show includes a re-examination of the infamous Robert Mapplethorpe Black Book exhibit from the 1990s. Photo after photo of naked black men sprawl next to quotes from commentators, critical theorists, and art mavens. The quotes weigh in on the public blasphemy of eroticized black male bodies, musing about whether Mapplethorpe’s images were exploitative. The comments run the gamut from appreciation to outrage, many of them conceding the ambiguity of representation and desire. Interspersed with the provocative poses of the mostly taut, virile young men, Ligon’s arrangement of the quotes underscores the ways in which the black body has always existed as contested space, as politicized. In an era in which mass incarceration and criminalization have become the predominant media for black embodiment, Mapplethorpe’s photographs are even more difficult to view within the lens of aesthetic pleasure. Mapplethorpe’s identity as a prominent white gay male photographer cannot be separated from the photos’ reception. Nor can his identity, power, and privilege be distanced from the tragic downward spiral of his black gay subjects, many of whom died of AIDS. It’s nearly impossible to imagine a black gay photographer gaining intimate access to the lives of white men for a similar photo essay. Heady pronouncements of colorblind equality are even more farcical in the context of the segregated art world, where artists of color are routinely ghettoized into “ethnic” shows. But art-making has an especially critical relationship to knowledge construction and human value. Who has the authority to make art, whose art will be considered as “great,” canonical, or universal is deeply connected to the standards of what is worth being seen.

Glenn Ligon's “Notes on the Margins of the Black Book” (1991-1993), based on photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. (Photo: International Center of Photography)

Glenn Ligon’s “Notes on the Margins of the Black Book” (1991-1993), based on photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. (Photo: International Center of Photography)

In the twelve-plus years since Ligon’s original Mapplethorpe exhibit, and fifteen-plus since the book’s publication, the art world template for the white genius as all-seeing and all-powerful has not changed. What has changed during this period is that HIV/AIDS has become a leading cause of death for young African Americans and mass incarceration has been deemed the “New Jim Crow.” Against this backdrop, God-lust amongst African Americans has morphed into a more fevered, strategically public practice. It’s not uncommon for young blacks to retort that some wayward person should get “right with God.” It’s rare to go to a black public event that isn’t kicked-off or concluded with a prayer from a local pastor. On TV shows like CNN’s Black in America: Silicon Valley, scenes of black folk bowing their heads and joining hands in prayer before a stressful event are pro forma. Black NFL players like Kurt Warner and coaches like Tony Dungee routinely attribute their success on the field and in life to God’s co-piloting. Over the past several years some Black churches have even declared Halloween a new “Satanic” ritual, offering their own kid-friendly, fall-themed festivals as suitably God-fearing alternatives. T-shirts and paraphernalia with Scripture and religious references flood the streets in predominantly black communities, where disposable income is an oxymoron for most.

Embracing, invoking, and bowing down to God have become shorthand for achieving upward mobility. In Essence magazine, Tasha Smith, a popular actress and fixture in Tyler Perry films, reflects on her journey to success. This particular actress is habitually cast as the kind of ball-busting Sapphire alpha men love to hate and white women love to fetishize. Smith’s specialty is channeling the hand-on-hip, tell-it-like-it-is, keepin’-it-real “bitch” who is never afraid to slice and dice her man in a high-octane public throwdown. Consequently, the reader is “shocked” to learn that she was once an atheist—frustrated, adrift, and emotionally scarred by a traumatic childhood. It’s implied that her lack of faith was a kind of spiritual albatross. As told to Essence, her subsequent transition to a God-fearing woman of faith hastens her rise to fame, wealth, love, and redemption via that rarefied cultural vehicle—the Tyler Perry film. The profile on the actress assures us that giving one’s life/fate over to God is an authentic rite of passage, a naked reclamation of self in the midst of a cold spiritual wilderness. God enables vision, and, ultimately, upward mobility. Godlessness signifies rudderlessness and absence of self-control, a potentially fatal flaw for a black woman trying to bootstrap to a moral life. Being a “good black woman” is defined by masochism. It is only through the crucible of self-sacrifice, by extending one’s faith until it hurts, that redemption can be achieved.

Witness: an acquaintance experiencing extreme economic hardship pledges to lay her life down to God after an email solicitation yields a gift of $50. The “ask and ye shall receive” regime of the prosperity gospel has become the cult of true blackness. On the surface it’s a rebuke to black invisibility, a bird flip to a dominant culture that revels in the myth of black downward mobility driven by lazy blacks shuffling from government handout to government handout.

If God is Black America’s co-pilot, then what does that say about the landscape of 21st century United States, where black wealth is virtually nonexistent? What does it betray about a country where residential segregation of African Americans and Latinos has become more prevalent now than during the 1980s? It’s tempting for some religious skeptics of color to dismiss these displays as indicative of backward thinking from uneducated black folk. But, as the faith-based pandering of President Obama and other politicians demonstrate, education and religiosity are not mutually exclusive. Just as there is no shortage of storefront churches in poor black communities, there is no shortage of mid-sized to megachurches in middle-to-upper-middle-class black neighborhoods. Faith and religiosity don’t exist in a political, social, or economic vacuum. Nor are they static. One female interviewee from the 2010 gospel documentary Rejoice and Shout acknowledged that Christianity was originally the “white man’s religion” but dismissed the claim that blacks were brainwashed or indoctrinated. The gender pageantry of the Black Church is on vivid display in the grainy archival footage from this fascinating documentary (and document) of black life in the early 20th century. Black women getting the Holy Ghost crowd the church aisles, writhing, gesticulating, and testifying to the Lord’s transfixion. Every now and then the camera captures a swooning male congregant, but, for the most part, the men sit upright and respectable in the pews as the reverends hold sway in the pulpit. It’s implied that performance and possession—the raw abandon of getting the Holy Ghost—are a woman’s medium, a manifestation of their natural sexual otherness, their closer relationship with the body, and, thus, their irrationality. Here, religious performance, the collision between sacred and secular, becomes a kind of artistry. Ecstatic religious expression is portrayed as a powerful device in a social context that does not afford poor black women agency, creativity, or visibility.

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Sikivu Hutchison’s book, “Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels” is now available.

Quoted: On The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

The Summer Prince

Cover of Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince

 

In addition to race and class dynamics, other issues from our real-world culture persist in Palmares Três. Even in a city run by women, teen motherhood continues to be stigmatized. One character in the book is the son of a woman who had him when she was 16. Although eighteen years have passed, both the son and mother, who has become a talented and sought-after designer, still face prejudice from those around them. In fact, in a city where people live to age 250, anyone under age 30 are treated with condescension, if not disdain. Enki’s popularity among both young and old people threatens the smooth and unchallenged reign of the Aunties and the Queen. And, with Enki as Summer King, June (and the rest of the city) start to realize that deceit bubbles beneath the beauty of Palmares Três.

So poverty and inequality are not eliminated under matriarchal rule. But Johnson’s matriarchy changes some of the ways people regard sexuality. People love and lust after for whomever they want, regardless of gender. June’s mother was first married to a man. Less than a year after his death, she marries a woman. No one bats an eye except June, who is furious at her mother’s rapid remarriage. At his first public appearance as Summer King, Enki and June’s best friend Gil meet and are immediately smitten. Their romance becomes constant fodder for the gossip feeds, but again no one questions their pairing.

The Summer Prince doesn’t push readers to think about real-world injustices like TankbornPartials orTruancy do. Instead, it was only when I emerged from Johnson’s beautifully written pages that I began to reflect on some of the similarities (and differences) between her world and this one. I can see YA readers, particularly YA girl readers, enjoying The Summer Prince, but it might take some prodding to connect the world and underlying injustices of Palmares Três to real-world issues of race, class, stigma and power.

– “Can a Society Run by Women Still Be a Dystopia?” by Victoria Law via Bitch Magazine

 

June, our heroine, is likably complex. She’s headstrong and confident, frequently referring to herself as “the best artist in Palmares Tres,” but she’s also believable as a slightly naive kid who hasn’t had to look outside the bubble of her privileged life as the stepdaughter of a government official. That life, of squabbling with her mother, working on cheeky performance-art stunts and hanging around with her best friend, Gil, changes dramatically when Gil falls in love with the newly elected Summer King Enki, a young man from the algae-farming slums.

It’s an unexpected twist in a novel full of them. Yes, this is a YA-dystopia-love-triangle story, but how unusual to see the heroine become the third wheel to a sensitively depicted gay relationship. And how deliciously unusual to read a YA dystopia that’s comfortable with ambiguity and nuance. This is a book that doesn’t condescend. Gil, June and Enki find themselves having to tread carefully as they work out their own answers to a host of questions about love, art, technology, tradition — even sex. Slightly bratty teenager June matures noticeably over the course of the narrative, becoming much more understanding of the adults in her life and what drives them. And even though one of the central conflicts in the book is a standard faceoff between the youth of Palmares Tres and the somewhat ossified ruling class, even the villains come off as understandable in the end.

– “Samba, Spiderbots And ‘Summer’ Love In Far-Future Brazil,” by Petra Mayer of NPR

Protecting White Kids From History

By Guest Contributor T.F. Charlton; originally published at Are Women Human?

Content Notes: racist violence, slavery, infanticide, Japanese internment.

So, this is a thing: a white parent has spent 6 months trying to get the Fairfax County,Virginia school system to ban Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved from its schools. Why? She feels its content isn’t suitable for children – where “children” here means older teenagers in an Advanced Placement class intended to provide college-level instruction – and is upset that reading the book gave her then 18 year old son nightmares.

Laura Murphy, the book-banning mom in question, has apparently also tried to get Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, a novel about the Canadian government’s internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II, removed from the county curriculum. I have no idea what her objection to Obasan is, but there appears to be a pattern here, and it looks an awful lot like whiteness.

There’s so much one could say about this.

Firstly: Yes, Beloved is a deeply disturbing book, no doubt about that. It’s the story of a mother who would rather kill her children than be forced to have them grow up as slaves. Morrison doesn’t spare feelings or constitutions in her descriptions of all kinds of horrific violence.

Kimberly Elise, Oprah Winfrey, and Thandie Newton in "Beloved."

Kimberly Elise, Oprah Winfrey, and Thandie Newton inBeloved. Still from The Ascension Blog

I’ve read a good portion of Beloved, but have never finished it, because I was strongly advised that it wasn’t a book I wanted to read while I was pregnant (I believe my friend’s exact words were “STOP READING IT RIGHT NOW”). So, I get it. It’s an unsettling read.

It’s a bit sad that this needs saying, but many books that are worth reading can be profoundly unsettling and scary, even traumatic to read. And this is in part because many unsettling, scary, traumatic things are part of the human experience.

It’s hard for me to imagine there aren’t several books on Fairfax County’s AP English curriculum that are potentially as disturbing as Beloved or Obasan. Say, for example, Lord of the Flies, which gave me nightmares when I read it in 10th grade. Kids going feral after being stranded on a desert island and hunting and killing each other is pretty nightmarish stuff, no? Or how about Hamlet? Dude pretty much slaughters everyone at the end [eta: hyperbole alert :-p]. Let’s ban, that, too.

But no, those books are part of the awfully white male “Western canon,” and not so vulnerable to these sorts of crusades. Their literary merit is established, so the violent and disturbing aspects are more easily taken for granted.  Despite Murphy’s claim that her objection to Beloved is purely about protecting kids and has nothing to do with her assessment of its literary merit, it’s quite obvious that her concerns about literary violence don’t apply equally to all books or all authors.

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